Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Roman Silk Block Damasks

'What have the Romans ever given us?  

Well ... the aqueducts, sanitation, the roads, irrigation, medicine, education, wine, public baths, public order, fresh water system, public health and peace.....  '       

Monty Python's  Life of Brian 1979

and also the rigid heddle and silk damask weaving.

A few years ago, I wrote an article describing how I had woven examples of Roman silk damasks.  These beautiful fragments had been buried twice, once in archaeological sites and the next time deep in academic journals.  I chased up all the references that I could and was even given access to some unpublished details. Fifteen fragments dating from the 2nd to the 4th century AD have been found.

Once there is a wealthy elite in society, then to supply their need for luxury and novelty, merchants and craft practitioners will strive to supply ever more luxurious and unique items. Silk was a very expensive commodity in Roman times and the weave structure of 3/1 and 1/3 twill blocks gives a new dimension to displaying its qualities of light reflection. If you want to read my full article it is available as a free download on https://www.academia.edu/  Type in my name in the search box.

It first appeared in the Journal for Weavers Spinners and Dyers, issue 233 Spring 2010,  Roman Silk Block Damasks

Since then, I have woven the designs many times.

As a weaver, I always look closely at cloth.  I find myself staring at scarves or table linen trying to work out the weave structure and patterns.  Art galleries are wonderful sources for unusual designs.  However, on holiday in Italy, I found what might be a mosaic picture of another Roman silk damask pattern.

Empress Theodora and her ladies.
Ravenna in Italy has eight World Heritage Sites. The basilica of San Vitale has a highly accomplished set of mosaics in the apse.  On the left side there is a depiction of the Emperor Justinian and a group of soldiers, one of whom is traditionally identified as his general, Belisarius. On the right side facing Justinian is his wife the Empress Theodora accompanied by ladies of the court.  The woman standing on her left is traditionally identified as the daughter of Belisarius. The mosaics date from 547, a year before the death of the Empress Theodora.

San Vitale.

In the centre mosaic, Christ is flanked by two angels. One angel is offering St Vitale a martyrs’ crown. On the right, bishop Ecclesio is offering the church to Christ.

The mosaics are of a high quality. I am particularly interested in the depiction of the cloth of two garments. One is worn by St Vitale and the other by a woman of the court. The pattern on both of the cloths is identical.

The Empress wearing a cloak.

The mosaic of the Empress Theodora shows her with seven ladies of her court. She is wearing a richly decorated military cloak and a jeweled headdress. The border has a frieze of the three wise men bearing gifts.The lady standing beside her is wearing a large mantle in cream and light brown. A mantle is a rectangular piece of cloth worn draped over the shoulder and arms.

A silk mantle.

Frances Pritchard[i] describes this mantle in some detail. ‘Mantles could also be woven from more luxurious silk fabrics and a particularly lovely example is represented on the mid-sixth century mosaic at San Vitale, Ravenna, of Empress Theodora and her court.  This mantle enveloping the woman standing beside the empress, has an all over pattern of small hexagons and a large, presumably tapestry woven, eight pointed star in one corner.

close up of cloak of St Vitale
The mosaic portrait of St Vitale shows his cloak/mantle with the same pattern as the mantle of the lady standing beside Theodora.

The folds and creases are indicated by subtle shading. The cloth has a rich blue border along the lower edge with a pattern indicated in gold. The cloth is fixed on the right shoulder with a gold fastening. Both his arms are underneath the cloak and he is reaching out to receive the martyrs’ crown from the angel.

There is a dark area of cloth shown over his right lower arm and elbow. The pattern on this area is different from the rest of the garment and is composed of crosses and squares.  His arms are underneath the cloth which appears to be folded back at this point. The quality of the mosaic work is truly amazing!

I was fascinated by this cloth as the pattern is similar to block twill patterns seen on Roman silks.  There are two silks found in the grave of Saint Paulinus of Trier which date to 395 AD.  The yellow silk has a pattern of squares and rectangles on one side and a pattern of crosses and squares on the reverse.  I think that it is similar to the patterns shown on the two cloths on the mosaic.  The dark area as depicted in the mosaic is the type of pattern that would appear on the reverse of a Roman block twill fabric.

Block twill patterns like these woven in one colour for warp and weft rely on light reflection for the pattern to be seen.  They are difficult to photograph but the patterns come to life when the fabric moves and the light catches the weave structure. When woven in two colours, one colour for warp and one for weft, the patterns can be seen more clearly, but some of the dynamic effect is lost.

I devised a pattern which could be an interpretation of mosaic pattern in Ravenna.  It is woven in 60/2 silk used double. This pattern has six blocks and is woven on 24 shafts. I used two colours, beige and old gold. 

My interpretation of the Ravenna mosaic cloth.

Although the pattern looks rather angular, when the actual material is viewed from a distance, the designs resolve themselves into curved shapes. Look at the two sides of the fabric shown on my photograph.  There are similarities to both patterns shown on the material of the cloak/mantle of St Vitale. One side of the mosaic depiction of a fabric has a pattern of crosses.

It is intriguing that this mosaic might be a representation of a ancient silk block twill pattern.

[i] Pritchard, Frances (2006) Clothing Culture:Dress in Egypt in the First Millennium  AD, page 123   The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.       ISBN 0-903261-57-X

I hope that you have found this topic as interesting as I have.

Susan J Foulkes

Durham Weaver
August  2014